If you have a colleague or boss who is off work because a significant person (wife/husband/child/parent/grandparent) in their life died, what is the workplace norm for communication?

Should you just let the person be unless you are close friends?

What do you do if the person isn't in your location?

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    "So.... about our project..."
    – Zaenille
    Commented Mar 27, 2015 at 6:11

4 Answers 4


I have been there as the grieving person (my spouse died almost 7 years ago) and as the person who has a coworker who has suffered a major loss.

There are multiple types of grief and some impact people at work more than others. Griefs where the person lives with you are often much more difficult to deal with than those of even close relatives you see less frequently. It is much more likely that a person who lost a spouse of child will be more stressed for longer at work.

It is virtually always the right thing to do to send a card or an email. If the bereavement is known in the organization, people will feel better if they receive acknowledgement of the event in some fashion. Flowers are a good gesture too, but think of the poor person stuck with taking them home from the funeral home and send them in groups from work, not one from each person.

If the obituary states a preference for a charity donation, that is usually a nicer gesture than flowers and often less costly.

The closer the person was to the bereaved, the more it is appreciated if you attend the funeral or viewing. If the funeral is local and the person who died was spouse or child, please do try to get to the funeral if you work directly with the person.

It is nice gesture if the deceased was a parent or sibling and generally not expected if the relative is further out than that. If the funeral is out of town and you know the personal email of the person, then an email that just says something about "thinking of you on this difficult day" is a kind thing that takes less than a minute to do.

On to work-specific things. First if the person is on bereavement leave and you can help get his or her work done, pitch in and help. It is hard enough to be on bereavement leave without coming back to a work nightmare. This is the single most helpful thing you can do.

The first time you see the person (or contact them informally by telephone (not a conference call) or IM if they are remote), take the time to express sympathy. Most of my remote co-workers took a minute to call me the first day I came back to work. It was most appreciated.

If the person seems to want to change the subject, let it go and don't bring it up again unless they do. If the person wants to talk, be kind and listen even if it makes you feel uncomfortable. That first week back, if you can ask them if there is anything you can do to ease their workload, it is appreciated in general. The ones who want to work to avoid concentrating on the grief will turn down your offer, but will likely still appreciate it.

Next, when my spouse died, little gestures from co-workers meant a lot. Money is likely tight when a spouse dies (I lost half my family income but not half the bills), so a restaurant gift certificate is a nice gesture. Other nice gestures I remember were a piece of high quality chocolate, cards on my desk left weeks after the funeral, co-workers who sat near me who kept other people away when I would sit there and cry, the co-workers who came and fixed my fence when it fell down in a storm, a co-worker who made sure I had something to do on my birthday, people who checked in on me periodically especially around major holidays. Grief doesn't magically end when someone comes back from bereavement leave.

If the person is struggling to get through the day (If you think they are struggling, they are), do or say something nice. Offer to handle that call with the client that everybody hates. Do anything you can at that point to help relieve some stress. If the person breaks down in tears in front of you (I cried every day at work for over a year), then a pat on the shoulder or just listening without being critical can help.

Recognize that the person will not be performing at his or her usual level. Try to cut them some slack when you can. This doesn't mean you have to let them do nothing or you have to accept bad performance. But there is a difference between a good worker working at half his usual pace temporarily and a slacker who never wants to try. Give people the benefit of the doubt when you know they are grieving. Even if you aren't the person's boss, you can do this. For instance, suppose you sent an email that needed a reply and you would normally have gotten one immediately from this person but didn't. Don't escalate the issue to his or her boss, but go to them again and gently remind them you need an answer.

But expect performance to pick up within a couple of weeks after they come back.

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    This is a different funeral "etiquette" (if that's the word) from what I'm used to. I wouldn't expect to attend the funeral of a colleague's parent or sibling that I've never met, and vice-versa I wouldn't expect a contingent from my work to attend the funeral of a close relative of mine that they've never met. But I suppose that funeral customs (including who would typically attend) are strongly cultural, and people reading this answer can adjust to what's appropriate for them and their colleagues. Commented Mar 27, 2015 at 9:30
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    In case I didn't say it, +1 for the excellent advice and especially, offering to deal with the client that everyone hates :) My mom died after a long illness. Surprisingly, I felt relief because I had grieved for her every single day as her condition deteriorated - I believe that death had delivered her from the fact that her body had turned into her prison. I took care of her until the last day of her life, she died more than ten years ago but I keep replaying in mind whether there was anything that I could have done differently that would have made some kind of positive difference for her. Commented Mar 27, 2015 at 10:16
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    I've only had this happen to one person I was managing, their kid died in a car accident and they came to work the next day understandably a total wreck because "they had no PTO left". Sent her home immediately and gave her a weeks PTO and asked her to call me at the end of that week and we can discuss if she needs more time. Sorry, when you suffer that sort of loss, you shouldn't be at work. (unless you find your work therapeutic or you need the distraction) Work should never come before family and your personal health (physical, emotional, or psychical), to hell with PTO. Commented Mar 27, 2015 at 19:08
  • My son died unexpectedly and you have described things excellently well. I was pleased that my boss, her boss, and ten or a dozen others from work showed up at the evening memorial. I went back to work after a few weeks, but had to move on after a few months because that job (in healthcare IT) reminded me too much of my son.
    – idarwin
    Commented Mar 28, 2015 at 16:53
  • While a few other answers were done well I think this is the best one.
    – blankip
    Commented Apr 11, 2015 at 18:51

I usually leave them alone with their grief. The first time they come back from taking time off, the first thing I say is "I am sorry for your loss. If there is anything I or anyone of us can do to make things easier for you, let me know" Then it's back to the work both for them and for me - the idea is to give them some kind of healing through the routine of work. I fade into the background as far as they are concerned but I am here to give support and help if they want it.

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    Generally speaking I've found this approach to be best. Most people going through a time of loss tend to be in one of three camps. One they just want time to themselves to work through it, Two they want support but only from their close friends and family, or Three they want support where they can get it and talking through their problems helps. With Vietnhi's advice you're being respectful of individuals who would prefer not to talk about it with you as well as making it clear they can speak with you if they would like. Commented Mar 26, 2015 at 18:26
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    @RualStorge We want to balance our desire to give them support and help with our desire to respect their privacy i.e. not intrude even accidentally on their personal space, They can swing back and forth, unpredictably, between looking for support and wanting to be left alone. There is an element of anger that comes with grief. You want to help but you don't want to get hurt trying to help :) Commented Mar 26, 2015 at 18:40
  • Agreed. "How are you holding up, and is there anything I can do to help" is about as detailed as you want to go. Unless you know them pretty well as friends rather than business associates, in which case you probably wouldn't be asking us this question.
    – keshlam
    Commented Mar 26, 2015 at 20:39
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    As a worker, I would suggest also a light start. Don't throw him tasks that require 100% focus and precision, but rather tasks where he can keep his mind busy. This for 2-3 days, with increasing demands. Generally those tasks help to subjectivelly reduce the length of the day. And it's always nice when we do something good and right, right? Commented Mar 27, 2015 at 16:36

While sending a written condolence card through the mail or flowers to the service is never a bad idea, this is something where it is best to let the person who has the loss determine how you respond. For some people, they throw themselves into work and don't want to talk about it. For others, they want time off, away from co-workers. And others do want to talk. It's not up to you to determine how they should grieve, nor to direct the conversation to something similar that has happened to you. Since the grief is in their circle, not yours, don't try to push your experiences into their circle. In other words, nothing in it is about you.

When they return to work, you can mention once that you are sorry for their loss. And then be quiet and take the guidance from them. If they change the subject, then let it go, don't say more. If they want to talk, then listen. If they want to work, then work.

If they are not in your location, then the card or flowers should be enough. It's not something that needs to come up in a work phone meeting, unless, again, they bring it up.

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    All very true, as I can attest. As U2 ungrammatically says, "Nobody can feel/no-one else's pain", so when we are suffering in grief, it is not helpful to be told of your previous loss. "I know how you feel because..." is always the wrong thing to say. If you are in it together (multiple parents losing kids in a team or school outing crash) you at least have something in common, but most of the time, you don't. Thanks for pointing this out in your answer.
    – idarwin
    Commented Mar 28, 2015 at 17:01

When people are in grieve we should provide them all the support they need.. in many of the times and instances if the people won't get bothered to speak with such people and leave them with themselves only because they need to be alone their are more chances of the turning into introverts or falling for or relying upon somebody else who might break their heart again. We must love someone only after making sure that we will be happy with ourselves a person who is not happy with himself how will he be happy with others. According to me the person who is off from work should not be left alone and should be provided with all support they need so that they wont turn into something else which they are not meant to be

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